Monday, 23 May 2016

Continuing my posts on the vocabulary of the Essex Wills and its place in English lexical history, an introduction to which can be found in this blog.

The Essex Wills are naturally full of words for household goods. The majority are words that are still used, though the things to which they are applied may now be different in design or appearance. A large majority are words, or meanings of words, that are no longer used, but are carefully recorded in dictionaries, and especially in the Oxford English Dictionary. But a significant number have escaped notice by lexicographers and yet can be found, often in large numbers, in wills, inventories, and other non-literary documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and sometimes in earlier and later documents). 


bench board

The Essex Wills contain four examples of this term:

1566 (II. 160) my table in the hall with the benchboard and the form

1571 (III. 238), 1572 (X. 14) benchboard

1596 (XI. 138) my table which I call a bench board.
It also occurs in the Essex Gentry wills:

1568 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 270 the table, cupboard, form, benchboard, stained cloths.

In seventeenth century inventories from Essex:

1637 in  F. W. Steer Farm & Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex 1635–1749 (1969) 71, 2 stooles, 2 bench boards.

1638 in F. W. Steer Farm & Cottage Inventories Mid-Essex (1950) 77 In the hall one benc board, 16s.

It is doubtful whether the example below refers to the same thing:

1833 Edinb. Rev. Oct. 102 Seated on their bench-board, they would allow them to dispose of suits, or take measure of crimes and misdemeanours, and furnish penalties that should fit.

The older kind of table, as other items examined here show, was the flat board that was mounted on trestles or other supports when needed and could at other times be stowed away. Possibly bench board referred to a table that was thought to resemble a bench in having permanent supports, i.e. the modern kind of table. Perhaps the 1596 testator says ‘which I call my bench board’ because this was regarded as a new design whose name was not yet fixed. Alternatively it might have been a table used with a bench.


There are at least three examples of this in the Essex Wills:

1573 (III. 86) a form and a pair of dormans standing in the hall

1577 (IX. 29) the long table in the hall lying on the dormans

1590 (V. 159) a table with a pair of dormans and 2 forms in the hall

It is evident from the above that dormans can (i) come in pairs, and (ii) support a ‘table’. The latter is not likely to be a table as we think of it, with built-in legs, but table n. 6c ‘a movable board placed on trestles or supports for the serving and eating of a meal’. If so, dormans must be trestles or supports of a similar kind. 

The OED senses of dorman n. are: 

1 = DORMANT n. 1 ‘a fixed horizontal beam’

2a = DORMANT n. 2 ‘a projecting vertical window in the sloping roof of a house’

2b = dormer-tile (relating to dormer in the previous sense). 

The Essex Wills also contain a word dormer in what is probably the same sense as dorman above, seeing how similar it is to the 1590 example of that word (OED has no relevant sense of dormer n.):

1597 (XII. 167) the long table in the hall with the form, dormers, blackboard, benches

Curiously, there is also a better known lexical item dormant table (OED’s dormant adj. 3 a ‘fixed, stationary’, 3b dormant table ‘a table fixed to the floor, or forming a fixed piece of furniture’. This is the more prestigious table with fixed legs (such as a bench board might be), while a dorman was only a component, used to make up the humble trestle table. 

This has (in my view) misled one historian (N. J. G. Pounds The Culture of the English People (1994) 141), who writes (re the 1573 Essex Wills example above) ‘it is all the more surprising to find in a husbandman’s cottage in 1573 “a pair of dormans standing in the hall”. The “dormant” table was of more solid construction..instead of trestles, it had four or more legs…’ 

There seems to be no evidence on Early English Books Online for dormans.

fold table

On the face of it, this would seem to be a table that folds. There are numerous examples in the Essex Wills:

1563 (VIII. 109) a little fold table

1573 (IX. 187) 1 ‘foulte’ table with a form in the hall

1578 (IX. 31) the fold table with the form

1587 (V. 207)  folte table

1587 (V. 207) foult table

1596 (VI. 227  folt table

There occur also:

1559 (II.  110)  folding table

1601 (XII. 127)  folded table

which are transparently tables that fold, which would appear to support the interpretation.

However, the form fold premodifying table needs explaining. What part of the family of fold words does it belong to? 

It may be an irregular past participle, though it seems a bit strange to call a folding table a ‘folded table’. The verb fold does have a ‘strong’ past participle form folden. This is used as an adjective, OED folden adj., under which, pleasingly, there are two examples of folden board / table:

1512 in W. H. Stevenson Rec. Borough Nottingham (1885) III. 114   Unam tabulam vocatam ‘a folden borde’ cum tribus foliis.

1572 in J. Raine Wills & Inventories N. Counties Eng. (1835) I. 348   One lyttle fauden table.

But we still have to explain why there is no -en. This is not difficult, as a number of past participles in modern English have lost this ending, for example find, with former participle founden, now found.

folden could have been similarly reduced to fold by loss of the suffix –en. A past participle form fold (with loss of –en) is actually shown in the forms list for the verb fold v.1

However, we also have to explain why the Essex Wills examples contain several forms with final –t. A participial form with final –t is also exemplified in the forms list for the verb fold v.1: Middle English y-falt, folte, fifteenth-century falt

This looks more like a ‘weak’ formation of the same type as bent from  bend and felt from feel than a reduced form of folden. So whether this lexical item is regarded as only a variant of folden adj. or as a separate entity depends partly on how we interpret its formation.

Another possibility is simply that the final /d/ of fold has been assimilated to the initial /t/ of the following word table.

The form foult is also found here (where assimilation of /d/ to /t/ is again possible before ch /tʃ/):

1588 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 37 one foulte chayer of black & redd Mockadow vijs.

The sense remains a bit puzzling. A ‘folding table’ is an obvious compound, but a ‘folded table’ seems a less intuitive description, if it is the same thing.

No examples seem to be available elsewhere.


This is another term associated in the Essex Wills with table, like dorman, and probably with a similar meaning, since the table lies or stands on the frame; but as it does not seem to come in a pair, it is perhaps some kind of single removable structure for supporting a table: 

1561 (II. 124) the table with the frame

1567 (II. 182) a table with a frame

1572 (X. 14) my table and frame to it

1586 (V. 86) a little frame form

1588 (V. 94) the ashen table as it standeth on the frame in the hall

1590 (XI. 28)  [to] Sybil an elm chest and Elizabeth a frame chest, Richard..a fir chest, Susan..a great oak chest

1595 (VI. 221) a table lying on a frame

It also occurs in the Essex Gentry wills:

1589 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 203 the long table and frame and an old long form.

1589 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 203 a table with a frame.

The Essex Wills also have:

1587 (V. 109)  a joined framed table

Outside the Essex Wills we find the following evidence:

1582 Inventory of James Benchkin’s goods, 30 November in Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life (2002) Appendix 191 Item one table with a frame. [Canterbury]

1598 An Inventory of the Stuff in the College Chambers (King’s College) in Collected Papers of Henry Bradshaw (1889) (164–180):
168 Item a square table with a frame & ij formes
172 Inprimis a table with a frame a forme & a benche
176 a table with a frame

1605 Inventory of John Marlow’s goods, 21 February in Constance Brown Kuriyama Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life (2002) Appendix 191 234 A litle table with a frame.

It is evidently a specific use of OED’s frame n. 5a ‘a supporting structure of which the outline or skeleton is not filled in; a framework’. This entry has been revised, but the use seems to be too localized in time and space to have been entered. All the evidence comes from the south-east of England within a period of about 40 years.

sheet/shett table, shot/shut table


1561 (I. 54) the sheet table with the form that standeth by it

(Felsted) 1570 (II.  246) sheet table with the table of the bench

(?Chelmsford) 1576 (IX. 123) a ‘shete’ table, a frame table

(Wimbish) 1579 (IV. 208) my ‘sheet’ table and the form

(Great Baddow) 1591 (XI. 90) a joined shett table

(Debden) 1594 (VI. 113) 1 ‘shett’ table in the hall


1563 (I. 247) 1 shut table in the hall

(Thaxted) 1570 (IX. 111) my shut table;

(Great Henney) 1572 (IV.  203) a shut table in the hall

(Great Easton) 1581 (X. 66) the shot table standing at her mother’s

(Tollesbury) 1582 (X. 48) a table shot with leaves

(Great Leighs) 1584 (V. 189) a shut table in the hall

(White Roothing) 1582/3 (X. 48) the shot-leaved table with a cupboard in it

No other examples found; there seems to be nothing on Early English Books Online. 

It is not clear whether the sheet/shett table and the shot/shut table are the same things. If they were, it would be necessary to explain the relationship of form. ‘shot’ or ‘shut’ seems to have some connection with the presence of ‘leaves’ for extending the table. 

sheet n.1 does not seem to be used in any sense that could relate to this. 

The word shut n.1 is promising, as (a) it has a ME form schett; (b) sense 1c is ‘A hinged or sliding door or plate for closing an aperture’; and (c) there is a compound shut-knife (albeit very much later) ‘clasp-knife’, which embodies the same notion of something that folds away.

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